(warning: talk of sexual coercion, sexual harassment, compulsory sexuality and sex-normativity)
Several posts have been written about this topic over the past few days, starting with when the topic of “gray-area consent” was brought up at The Asexual Agenda. I’m glad that it was brought up. Queenie said many of the things that I wanted to write about, but didn’t know how to, nor did I know if anyone could relate to this concept.
Back in October, one of the questions of the week asked about personal experiences with romance, gender, or sexuality that are difficult to categorize. I mentioned my romantic orientation as an example, but as I was typing my answer, I wanted to mention that I felt like my experiences with consent fell under gray areas, but I held back. I thought it’d be too controversial.
A lot of people in the asexual community, and in feminist circles, believe that consent is all-or-nothing: You either consent, or you don’t. Consent should be all-or-nothing, and I believe it would be in a world without compulsory sexuality and sex-normativity. However, these things exist, and their existence complicates consent in practice.
There are a lot of people, inside and outside of the asexual community, who had experiences with consent that could be considered questionable. The frameworks used for consent, usually don’t account for these experiences.
Queenie quoted part of one of my posts, and did narrowly avoid caving into sex. I nearly “consented” (read: caved in) because I thought saying no indefinitely wasn’t an option.
I’ve heard of many asexuals and repulsed people have sex, and “consent” to it, for this reason. Even if they weren’t actively pressured into sex by their peers or partner like I was, there was still coercion by societal norms, and the assumptions that everyone must want sex, and that it is an expected part of romantic relationships.
If they had known at the time that not having sex was an option, they likely would’ve taken it, or at least come to an informed decision about sex, instead of just having sex, because they thought “it was just what everyone did”. Having one option is the same as having none. You don’t have another option you can weigh it to, so having sex seems like the default.
I knew that I didn’t have to have sex at first, but all the invalidation I experienced for my asexuality and sex-repulsion, along with the pressure to have sex, made my second-guess that.
If I said yes, and had sex at that time, any “consent” I gave, would’ve been meaningless. I would’ve said yes, because I was too emotionally beaten down to resist, or defend myself any further. I wasn’t thinking about sex being a bonding activity like he saw it. All I could see having sex with him as being the ultimate expression of surrender. Surrender of my bodily autonomy to him, surrender of my boundaries. With complete surrender, comes complete power over me.
That would’ve been what Emily Nagoski’s model of consent classified as “coerced consent”. The “consent” I gave that was saying yes, and complying out of fear of the consequences if I didn’t, also fall under that category. I experienced it in a much earlier incident. A friend I had in middle school sexually harassed me, and coerced me to endure it. I knew that I could’ve said no, and knew that he was in the wrong, but I didn’t, because I feared what he’d tell his peers if I resisted. I feared he’d spread rumors to our peers, saying that we had sex, that I enjoyed it, and I’d get shamed for it by all my peers. I definitely don’t count this as consent.
In either of these cases, the “consent” I gave, or would’ve given, would be considered either meaningless, or doesn’t count as consent at all. Either way, I was being actively coerced by another person, into things that I didn’t want to do. Personally, I don’t count “coerced consent” as consent.
The “compromise” I had with my partner, falls under a gray area of both consent, and sexual violence. I was still repulsed by any form of sexual intimacy, including sensual contact that I know the other person sees as sexual. I didn’t want to do it, and I never gave freely-given, or sufficiently informed consent, but I wasn’t being actively coerced by other people.
I still felt pressured to compromise, but a lot of this pressure came from my own internal conflict. Whether I consented is questionable. I’ve second-, third-, fourth-guessed myself about this. I did it to make him happy, because I knew that intimacy meant a lot to him, but also because I felt like it was no use fighting back. I was already so exhausted from fighting to keep just one physical boundary, and that was no penetrative sex. I also succumbed to learned helplessness. Keeping just that one boundary was difficult enough, and I still felt like I was wrong about my asexuality, and my sex-repulsion. I didn’t find any use in seeking out the asexual community, or uphold my other boundaries. It felt hopeless.
Olivia’s mapping of the gray area of consent brought up one of the factors that makes consent so complicated, and it’s one that I experienced: The concept of “keeping tally” in a romantic-sexual relationship. The pressure to reciprocate a partner’s wants for sex, is tremendous:
Sure, I knew I was supposed to and that I didn’t have to do anything I wasn’t interested in, but the pressure that I would be seen as withholding or bitchy or uninterested or prudish, or that if I said no too many times my boyfriend would start to hate me (secret: this does happen and did happen quite a number of times) left me with no conception of how to actually enforce my boundaries, even when I still loved and cared about the person and would probably want to have sex with them again some other time.
That’s something I’m guilty of. I knew I didn’t have to do anything, but was motivated to say yes, and “compromise”. It wasn’t a good compromise for either of us, but I cared about him as a person, and I felt guilty and ungrateful if I didn’t engage in any form of intimacy that he wanted. He sacrificed sex for me as part of the compromise, so I should sacrifice something in return, like some of my boundaries, just as long as the one I fought so hard to uphold, remains?
This is not how compromise should be handled in mixed relationships. Many poor examples of compromise, that leave one or both partners unsatisfied, may fall under gray areas like this.
My “partner” had no violent intentions. I’m familiar with the phrase “Intent isn’t magic”, which means lack of malicious intent doesn’t negate harm that happened, but I’m still ambivalent about whether this applies to my situation. I was hurt, but there was no active perpetrator in this, not as I saw it.
I feel like I’ve experienced “begrudging consent” or “reluctant consent”, which feels like “I don’t want to do this, but I’ll say yes, and do it, just because it makes you happy.”
The underlying factors behind this type of “consent”, aside from learned helplessness, are wanting to avoid hurting the other person’s feelings. I care about my partner, although I didn’t want to do anything physically intimate at all, so would it have been bad to say no to all physical intimacy? It’s a rhetorical question, but one that really left me conflicted between making him happy, and upholding my boundaries.
Coyote of The Ace Theist, analyzed this phenomenon, termed “conflict-aversion”, which makes saying “no” a lot more difficult than it could be.
What this question makes me think about — these anxieties about how saying anything could make someone feel too guilty, to make them feel like a Bad Person — falls under the part of the umbrella of conflict-aversion that I struggle with most. Much of the time, I can power through ordinary stranger conflict-aversion through sheer annoyance. With people I’m close to and care about, though, making them feel bad can feel so much worse than holding my tongue, especially if I don’t think I can get them to understand that it doesn’t have to be a big deal.
It’s another reason why I think the deed-oriented model of morality is a lot more practical and would, I assume, make things easier on a lot of people — because that means “hey, it turns out I don’t want this” doesn’t have to translate into “you’re a monster,” and I say that for the sake of people anxious to make clear that they’re not calling anyone a monster when they change the status of their consent or decide that something was a bad experience.
Once again, the other person, who wants sex, isn’t an active perpetrator in this; they aren’t (intentionally) pushing their partner into sex. The conflict is from within, and I often did feel like a “bad person”.